Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 47: MLK
JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host Jared Blumenfeld. In breaking news, this week, Podship Earth moved to Sacramento. I got sworn in by Governor Gavin Newsom as the new secretary of California's environmental protection agency. Cal-EPA, as it's known, has five and a half thousand effective and forward-thinking employees working to reduce air pollution, increase recycling, clean up toxic sites, implement pest management practices, research environmental health impacts and protect our rivers, lakes, groundwater, and oceans. On Day two, the governor released a budget which includes big increases for access to safe and affordable drinking water for all Californians, while the budget also more than doubles funding for healthy soil programs. And finally, the budget creates a green jobs program aimed at reducing carbon in the environment. Yesterday, the governor convened his first cabinet meeting aboard a bus, taking the entire team to the Central Valley, to talk with communities that have water access and quality challenges. In one of them, Monterey Park tract, residents are paying $90 for water that they couldn't drink and then having to spend $30 on bottled water. That's more than what Beverly Hills pays for their water bills. Last year, in Podship Earth episode 11, Dirty Secrets, we discovered that cities like Beverly Hills refused to pay just $1 a month to help poor Californians have clean water. This year, Governor Newsom has agreed to try again to create a safe and affordable drinking water fund. To be ethically proactive and clear cut, Podship Earth will no longer do any kind of advertising or receive outside funding, and given my new workload, Podship Earth will now be released every two weeks. In many ways, it's also been a hard week because although I'm super excited about my new job, I moved to Sacramento, and my family is still in San Francisco and I miss them a lot. On the plus side, because Sacramento is actually a very cool city, I might be able to get them to visit. On this week’s show, we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, whose birthday was on January 15th. I wish there was a Dr. King for the environment right now. By combining love, religion, nonviolence, civil disobedience, bold goals and incredible tenacity and discipline, Dr. King helped change both the laws and the culture of our nation. The song “We Shall Overcome” became a rallying cry for the civil rights smooth. I just finished reading Zora Neale Hurston's book “Barracoon: The story of the Last Black Cargo.” Although the Atlantic slave trade was banned in 1808, in 1859 Clotilda, a schooner run by the Meaher brothers illegally journey to present day Nigeria where the Meahers purchased 110 people, enslaved them, returned to Alabama, and smuggled them ashore where they were sold. The Clotilda was the last known slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the US. Kossola, who later took on the name, Cudjo Lewis was one of the captives on the Clotilda. He was enslaved for five years. He then gained freedom after the Civil War and helped establish Africatown, a community next to Mobile, Alabama. In Africatown, residents retained their west African language and customs well into the 1950’s. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Africatown and met with Cudjo Lewis. The interviews she conducted formed the basis of her book Barracoon. Bringing it full circle, Evelyn Knight, who we'll hear from today, was born in Africatown in 1934, one year before Cudjo Lewis passed away. Evelyn grew up in Africatown and went on to gain a master's degree in social work and ran an incredibly successful social services organization in Long Beach, California. Evelyn marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. I started by asking Evelyn to tell us about where she grew up. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up in Alabama.
EVELYN KNIGHT: Yes. Well, I was born in Africatown, Alabama, which is an African community in the greater Mobile area. My mother and her six siblings were born there, and they lived in the houses that were built by the people that brought the Africans to that community on the last slave ship, the Clotilda in 1859. And so, that meant that my parents and my grandparents and all of my mom's siblings were long-term residents and that was what created us. And the Africans, you know, set up the community and they bought land. They tried to get land given to them by the people that brought them there, but they refused. So, they bought land from the people who would sell land to them.
And so, they started that community that way.
JARED BLUMENFELD: You've been a social activist your whole life?
EVELYN KNIGHT: Yes, I have been a social activist. It started probably in Africatown, because my father used to talk to us and tell us about his family and how they lived. And he was always talking with my grandfather about news, about how African Americans were treated. And he didn't appreciate how his family were treated, the discrimination, so he would just let us know about all of that. He also on his job, when he worked for the paper mill, there was discrimination in pay between the blacks and the whites, and he would advocate for better pay a on his job and he would talk about that. So, I just kind of grew up and our teachers would talk to us about a discrimination and inequities in the community and the society as a whole. And, they were always supportive of trying to make things work for us and people in the community, and they supported civil rights. And so, my daddy was very enthusiastic about Martin Luther King and he loved Martin Luther King, and he was always talking about him. So, I grew up in a community that was about what it was about. And the Africans were very open and inviting and wanted people to come to that community and welcomed them there. And all the people who would come there, they seemed to just embrace the values of the community and reached out also. And my grandfather was a farmer and he raised vegetables, and back in the 30’s and the 40’s, you know, people had a very hard time making a living. And so, my granddaddy would grow vegetables and people from all over the community would come and buy vegetables from my grandfather. And he would charge them very little money, whatever they had to give him for the vegetables, that's what he would take. And if the family didn't have any money, if they were too poor to pay for it, he would always give it to them. So, I grew up and my mother would reach out to people and she helped her siblings, and she worked, and she taught. She would share resources with children in the community if their parents didn't have a job or have any work. If she gave us something to eat or some, some candy or some fruits, she would always share those with the neighbors. So, I just grew up in an environment where there was a lot of sharing. We had one policeman, his name was Mr. George Meal and whenever anybody had a problem in the community, they would go to Mr. George Meal’s house and tell him what the problem was. And he would counsel them and talk to them and you know, suggest ways of resolving the conflict. And that's how they handled their problems. He had a gun, but he never shot anybody. He just had that with him because he was empowered to carry the gun. But they never saw problems through violence. They were always handling problems through communication. And my mother, if older people in the community needed someone to stay with them or needed some help, she would let my siblings or me go and support them. If people needed someone to go to the store, we went to the store for the neighbors. So, it was just a close-knit community that shared and cared about each other and we just knew that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And do you remember the day that you marched on Selma?
EVELYN KNIGHT: Yes. Well I was in Long Beach. I had been involved with Martin Luther King in Saint Louis before I came to California. He would have rallies. He had rallies at the baseball parks. And so, we would go to hear him, and he would talk about, you know, issues and needs and things to do to be engaged in and involved in and our rights and responsibilities to make things better for our lives. So, going to Selma. One Sunday in 1965, I was living on Olive here in Long Beach and I was looking at TV, and all of a sudden, you know, the news came on and there was this March in Selma with these people who lived in Selma who were going to march from Selma to Montgomery to petition the government for their rights to vote. And so looking at that TV program, they showed those people doing that, and the police, they were on horses and they waded in into the crowds with clubs and they started knocking the people down in the streets and they started had beating on the people. And so, I was looking at this and I just got very disturbed. I mean, I'm was angry looking at that. Those people were doing nothing but just wanting to stand up for their rights and go and vote and this was what was happening to them. And so that went on pretty much most of the day in the news that Sunday. I remember was a Sunday. So, Martin Luther King got on national network television later on that evening because he wasn't in Selma at that time. He was down in Atlanta with his church and he was preaching there. And so, when he got news of that, he came back to Selma and he said he wanted anyone who wanted to protest what they had seen earlier that day to come down to Selma and be a part of a rally. He wanted as many people as possible that come for that following Tuesday so they could respond and protests, what had happened to those people that Sunday. So, I looked at that and so I decided that I needed to respond to his request. And I decided that I was really going to go, and I was going to find a way to go. So, I started calling around to see if I could get a ticket to go down to Selma to be there for that Tuesday. And this was Monday. There were no planes going to Selma. And so, I decided that I was going to go to Mobile and borrow my dad's car and drive to Selma because I knew Selma was not all that far.
That Monday evening when I boarded that plane almost, I'd say two thirds of the people who were on that plane, we're going to Selma. And I knew some of them. I knew the ministers because I had been working in the community with some of those people. And so, they said they were going to be going to Birmingham. And then they had made arrangements to have the minister at the church, the 16th Street Baptist church, where those children were killed. So, I went to Birmingham with the group and we were picked up at the church. We were taken to the church for breakfast. And after that we got on the bus, the church bus, along with the minister. The pastor of the church got on the bus with us. So, we drove from Birmingham to Selma. We were a little anxious because we thought, well, somebody was going to try to stop us from doing what we were doing, and it was not a problem. So, we got down to Selma and it was just the most exciting time of my life because the streets had people from all over the United States and Selma to go and march with Martin Luther King. So, when we got out, the people in the community was just welcoming us to the community. They were so happy that we were down there to respond to that. They had water for us. They made their homes available for us. And then we went to the church, Brown chapel in Selma. That's where Martin wanted us to come and have a big rally. So we went to the church with the Brown Chapel and Martin talked to us and told us what was going on and told us how happy was for us to be there to continue our march from Selma to Montgomery to petition the government for our rights to vote without any violence. We all filed out of the church and we start to march, and they had to route that we followed. And the route led us after we winded around the streets in Selma, we got on the street that led us to the Pettus Bridge, the route took us 50 miles away to Montgomery.
And so, we were all excited. We were marching arm in arm and up to the Pettus Bridge and we had no idea what was going on, what was waiting for us on the other side of that bridge because nobody told us. But when we got on top of that bridge, we saw all these people on the other side in uniform with guns and bayonets and all that that was waiting for us. So, in my mind it was like, wow, we are fixing to have another bloody Tuesday. Like they had just had on bloody Sunday. And so, it was a very frightening thought. But we kept going and Martin, he didn't say anything to us. He just kept going. When we got to them, he told them that we were going to Montgomery, the petition for our rights to vote. He told us to stop, they told us to stop.
And so, we stopped. Martin continued. He didn't stop right away. He made a few more steps toward them and so they pointed their guns and the bayonets at us and told us to stop again. And so, when they told us the second time, Martin turned around to us, faced us and he said, let us pray. He said, let us kneel and pray. So, we all kneeled down and prayed and after we kneeled down and prayed, we got back up and he turned around and faced us. He said, we're not going to go to Montgomery tonight, but we are going to Montgomery. He said, I don't want to get anybody hurt. We don't want any violence. So, what I want you to do is to stick around so we can get things together and get some protection for our march.
And so, we said, fine. We didn't go to Selma to die. And so, we went back to the church and we went to get dinner and get food and get ourselves together, get us places to stay in, in the community. So, that was what happened that Tuesday. They called a turnaround. Tuesday, we found out that Martin had talked to Lyndon Johnson and Lyndon Johnson had told Martin that if he didn't get a lot of blood in the streets and violence in the streets, that he would work with him to get a compliment for the march from Selma to Montgomery. And so, about a week and a half later, the National Guard was lined up to accompany the marchers and to protect them from the violence and from the attack. And so, the march was complete with the support of the national guard and met with the governor, and he signed the voting rights bill. And a lot of people came from everywhere, all over the place, to join with the marchers. And it was just a big, big celebration in Montgomery. So that was how that went.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Here’s Martin Luther King on “Meet the Press” just days after Evelyn and the other marches arrived in Montgomery, Alabama.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I would think that the march did more to dramatize the indignities and injustices negro people continue to face in the state of Alabama and many other sections of the south. More than anything else, I think it was the most powerful and dramatic civil rights protest that has ever taken place in the south. I think it will justify the cost that we put in it. Well, the demonstration was certainly for the voting rights bill. However, we must recognize there are other tragic conditions existing in the state of Alabama, which are as humiliating, as degrading and as unjust as the denial of the right to vote, namely police brutality.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Five months later, President Johnson signed into law the 1950 Voting Rights Act.
EVELYN KNIGHT: A year later, I was in working in Richmond, with the Richmond community demonstration project with the city of Berkeley. And that was in 1966, and Terry Kennan who work with Snick and headed up the Movement Paper that he'd published in Berkeley for Snick….
JARED BLUMENFELD: …Just for reference, Snick is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
EVELYN KNIGHT: Snick send him money to buy a plane ticket to come down and cover the first election after the Voting Rights Bill had been passed in 1966. He came to our office the day before and said he was going to rent a car and anybody who wanted to go to work in that election, that he was going to be driving down to Selma and he wanted them to let them know to go with him. And I said, I want to go. So that next day I got ready and next day he came, and he rented a car. It was a 1966 Impala. I remember the kind of car it was. And Mark Comfort who picketed the Oakland Tribune for their discrimination policies and not doing things that he felt that they should be doing, a lot of people felt they should be doing to portray black people in a respectful manner. He also was a member of the Black Panthers. And so, he had one of his young kids working with him, a teenager, about 17-year-old kid. Me, Terry, Mark and this young kid were in the car. So, we drove from Richmond, Berkeley down to Southern California. That's when I told my family that I was on my way to Selma and Lowndes county to work in the first election after the voting rights bill was passed. So sure enough, we came to Long Beach and then we got in the car and then we start driving back across country to get to Lowndes county. And so, when we stopped someplace in Arizona to get some gas, the white man came to get gas for us. And this kid was just frightened to death. By the way, we did have some guns in the car, you know, to protect the folks from the Klansmen because we knew we were not going to be welcomed down there and we might need to do to protect ourselves. And they wanted protection. The men wanted protection. When the man came to get the car, this kid got scared. He said, get the guns. I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is not what this is for, Honey, please. So, you know, he calmed down. We stopped in Green, Mississippi at one of Snick’s headquarters to rest out in the boondocks, some of the back woods.They had a Rock-Cola, a record player there singing a Sam Percy Sledge song, “When a man loves a Woman”, just a haunting song, and all of those blues songs. We were lying down on a sacks full of cotton they had picked. It was like unreal what we were experiencing, but it was wonderful too, you know, it was just a beautiful experience, exciting. When we got to Selma, the people were rallying and getting wired up for the election. The next day. Stokely Carmichael had adopted an African name by this time.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Yes. Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term “Black Power” changed his name to Kwame Ture in 1978. Here he is talking about capitalism.
KWAME TURE: We must understand clearly when we talk about capitalism, who are the capitalists. If we understand that there are only a few people who own and control the means of production in the society, then we begin to understand that there are a few capitalists and these capitalists exploit everybody because everybody works for them. Everybody sells their labor to them.
EVELYN KNIGHT: I would see him everywhere I would go -every rally, every event, me and him, our eyes would just catch each other, and we began to recognize each other and get excited. But anyway, he had been on a truck that day riding around the neighborhood saying, “can't you see what the people are doing for you?” Come on out to vote. And so, they arrested him, but they didn't keep him in jail because they were scared to put him in jail because they were afraid that was going to be some rioting, you know, if that happened. So, they let him out. And so, when they let him out that evening, he went to the church and there was a big rally at the church. So, we all went to the church in Selma after we left the church and had the rally at the church. We got back in the car and we drove down to Lowndes county. They wanted us to show the people how to vote, how to use the voting machine. So, the next day, when election time came, we went into people's homes and we asked them, you know, did they need a way to get to the polling place? And we were driving them to the polling place, but then there were other problems going on that would make your blood boil because these people would bring very old black people who had just been enslaved on their plantations for generations and for years who were very frightened and very scared because they had told them how to vote and you know, scared them to death. So, you could just see the fear and some of them. So that was not exciting about what was going on because the remnants of slavery, you could see that, and they were still scaring them. And then they would be at the polling place, the white people standing intimidating stances and trying to fight people to keep them. And then Snick knew too, that a lot of white people who had died, they were still voting so they were stealing the election like they are doing still doing some of that stuff today. So, we experienced a lot of that down in Lowndes county, down in Alabama, and back in those places and they knew they were doing all of that and where was not too much they could do about it. But we had a whole lot of local people who were ready to run for office when the black people got stronger, they got organized better.
JARED BLUMENFELD: You've seen this whole arc of history, like where are we at this moment in time?
EVELYN KNIGHT: I have just been unbelievably appalled by the latest stuff that I've seen. Because like many people, I did not know and I did not understand how vulnerable our system is and how it's just out there to be ripped off by, you know, people who just want to do bad things and just do things to the system just because they can. And so, that was my first response. And then my second response was, you know, what this is really all about is, it's about what people need to be doing and what people can do when they want to change things and do things for themselves and engage themselves and their lives, and in their government and in systems that they set up, that belongs to them. They need to be more involved so that they can have good things happen to them. And I saw that with the Africans who didn't have nothing. People in my community had nothing. When they stood up for themselves and when they were serious and not spoiled and expecting everybody to do everything for them, you know, their lives became so much better with so much less than what these people have. So, eventually they will do this, and they must do this. And if they don't know how, they're going to have to learn how. And so those are the things that are going to change because this system was set up by people who wanted to make life better for themselves. When we were better people, doing better things for ourselves, then better things happen.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How do you think that process begins?
EVELYN KNIGHT: You know, it starts with the people and it ends with the people. And so, the people that are the key to everything that has to happen in their lives, but they have to be ready to step up to the plate and make things happen that they want to see happen. You know, as long as people can come take something from you and do bad things to you, they are going to just because they can. Man's inhumanity to man has been ever since man’s been in the universe. It's going to be here probably as long as they are because if they can do something, they will. And the bad people want to do that. That's what they will do. I like standing up for the right thing. I like good people. I like to talk and be with good people who want to do what I want to do. And I will go anywhere, anytime and do whatever I can do to make sure that I do my part to make a difference. I can't tell other people what to do, but I can sure tell Evelyn and that's what I do.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Evelyn, what's your New Year's resolution?
EVELYN KNIGHT: I'm going to continue to talk about the things that I feel passionate about, that I care about, which is people, because I think people are the most important part of our existence, always have been, always will be. And that's the way I feel about it. All these other things are for people. People should not be put behind all these material things. They should be put in front of them because those things should be for people. And I don't think they're more important, material things are not more important than people for me in my life. Everything I have material is to support human beings, not to take away from them.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you so much to Evelyn Knight. She lights up the world with her dynamism and spirit. Her passion for justice is so sincere and beautiful that it transforms those around her. I feel so fortunate to have spent time with her at her house in Long Beach. The way Evelyn lives life is by engaging it head on. Like Dr. King, Evelyn didn't stop on the Edmund Pettus bridge. She kept going realizing that the march for justice nevers stop. The next episode of Podship Earth in two weeks, sorry to Podship Earth junkies, will be on preppers. Those who are preparing for the next big disaster, from a superstorm to earthquakes to Armageddon itself. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Speight, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a great week. And to end it out, here's Dr. King talking about the importance of the song, “We Shall Overcome.”
DR. KING: There’s a little song that we sing in our movement down in the south. I don't know if you heard, but it has become the theme song, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome. You know, I join with students and others behind jail bars, singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Yes, sometimes we've had tears in eyes when we join together to sing it, but we still decided to singing, “We Shall Overcome.”